Ventura sewer law spikes concerns

By Carla Iacovetti 12/26/2013

The residents of Ventura may find some unpleasant surprises from a new city ordinance. The city of Ventura will require every home and commercial property for sale to have a sewer line scope inspection done by a licensed plumber, and ultimately to become certified by the city. Initially slated to begin Jan. 1, it has recently been postponed until Feb. 3.

“This will affect us at point of sale,” said Karen Heyrend, president of Ventura County Coastal Association of Realtors (VCCAR). “The purpose is to establish protection, maintenance and repair or replacement of private sewer laterals by the property owners within the city of Ventura.”

This ordinance is a response to a lawsuit that was filed against the city of Ventura by Ventura Coastkeeper in association with Wishtoyo Foundation, a Ventura County community-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit membership organization. Ventura Coastkeeper is dedicated to restoring and preserving the ecological integrity and water quality of all Ventura County’s water bodies. The city settled rather than go forward with a lawsuit.

Jason Weiner is Ventura Coastkeeper’s associate director and staff attorney.

“Ventura taking the proper measures to protect its coastline and beaches from raw sewage spills not only protects surfers, swimmers and marine life, but the value of Ventura’s homes and the profitability of its business,” Weiner said. “When sewage infrastructure like private laterals connecting homes and housing complexes to the city’s lines are not maintained, raw sewage can spill into Ventura’s coastal waters and cause catastrophic human health and ecological impacts. Ventura and its residents stand to benefit in the immediate future and in the long run from pristine and healthy beaches that attract tourists, visitors and residents to the city.”

Sean O’ Toole, a local agent with Keller Williams Realty and a surfing enthusiast, understands all too well the importance of having clean beaches and water, but is apprehensive about the implementation of the ordinance and with little to no notice given to the public.

“In a rebound economy emerging out of one of the worst recessions since the depression, new regulations like this are going to put strain on our real estate market here in Ventura, especially when connecting this sewer ordinance to a short 30-day escrow. I see many potential problems arising from this,” said O’Toole.

“Although this might seem quite innocuous at first glance, it actually has the potential of creating extreme financial hardship to homeowners due to the funds possibly needed to comply with the ordinance,” said Bob Ridgway, a Ventura native and an agent with Remax Gold Coast Realtors.

For example: In the case of older condo complexes in Ventura with sewer networks owned by the associations, owners will need to have the lines scoped, diagnosed and then have to repair any problems. Since the sewer lines are not individually owned, the association will be responsible for any required repairs. If one condo is up for sale, this could trigger assessments for all the other condo owners.

Local real estate attorney Matt LaVere with Jones & Lester LLP said he believes the ordinance will become a major legal issue.

“In condo buildings, the homeowners association (HOA) is typically responsible for sewer line maintenance and repairs,” he said. “Based on my reading of this new ordinance, if a condo owner wants to sell their unit, the ordinance forces them to rely on the HOA’s fiscal ability to pay for any necessary sewer repairs as a condition precedent to a sale going through. If the HOA doesn’t have the reserves necessary to perform the repairs and a sale is prevented from closing, it is the condo seller who is punished through no fault of their own. That seems incredibly punitive to condo owners. I can imagine a lot of litigation resulting therefrom, whether it be a condo owner against city or condo owner against HOA.”

Many property owners may be completely in the dark. The ordinance covers the entire sewer system, which encompasses single-family homes, condominiums and mobile home parks as well as commercial properties. In addition, private commercial landowners will be required to inspect and repair sewer lines every 10 years. City property, however, is exempt from this requirement.

“[All] properties have the same capacity to negatively impact the public sewer system if their lines are not adequately maintained, so why shouldn’t both commercial and city property be subject to the same inspection and repair requirements?” asked LaVere.

While the city is giving the seller a maximum six-month window to complete repairs, questions linger about how any sale will go through.

“This has been a big point of discussion with the city. Whatever issues are found would basically halt the sale unless the prospective buyer is OK with paying for repairs after escrow closes. The lender may step in and deny the loan because of the condition now in play,” Ridgway said. “As far as we can see, it’s a big mess all the way around.”

“It’s unsettling because no one really knows what will be expected for getting a sewer line certified,” said O’Toole.

Matt Vizzo of Franklin & Vizzo Plumbing was surprised to find out about the ordinance. According to Vizzo, the minimum for a plumbing permit for a sewer line is $492 dollars, but said that is only the beginning.

“A homeowner is responsible for the sewer line running from the property connection ‘T’ in the center of the street, and this is where the real expense adds up,” said Vizzo.

“The city is trying to meet the needs of realtors and homeowners, however, it seems a little untimely because certain things aren’t in order yet,” said O’Toole. “The plumbers’ inspection checklist hasn’t yet been finalized. It’s going to be problematic in the short-term, trying to explain to a seller what is required, if the information isn’t available.”

According to the Ventura County Multiple Listing Service, year-to-date, there have been 1,196 homes sold; 1,116 of these homes, or 94 percent of all homes sold to date, were built prior to 2003, meaning that they would be subject to this ordinance. 


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